I can think of a few in my personal life – the folks who I’ve learned deep lessons from. The kinds of lessons that shape a life, a way of seeing, a way of experiencing the world.
The thing about wisdom teachers is they can’t be grasped and held onto; they come and go with the seasons. Their wisdom speaks to us in the moments of our lives when we’re able to hear…and then the moment moves on and we do too. That’s the thing about wisdom: it’s always available for us but often only accessible if we’re in a space and a season where we can receive it.
So who are your wisdom teachers? Who are those people, living or deceased, who have shown up in your life in just the right way – whose wisdom has flowed into you and changed you? They might be family members or friends, elders or spouses. They could be ancient authors or modern writers.
A wisdom teacher is anyone who has fallen, become acquainted with their depths, gotten back up, and shared what they have found.
Here are a few of mine.
Authors, guides, and activists
Perhaps nobody has done more to affirm and deepen my spirituality than Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and my academic dean at the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Having deconstructed the Christian belief systems I was handed over the years, Rohr’s teachings helped me to wade back into the waters of spirituality, reinterpreting the rituals and language I had been taught rather than throwing them all away. Launching the Center for Action and Contemplation to create a space for people to integrate their inner life with social justice, his teachings on incarnational mysticism and contemplation have changed my life. I recommend starting with his book Falling Upward or listening to his podcast “Another Name for Every Thing.”
Mirabai Starr is one of the most influential teachers in my life, helping me to encounter the feminine energy of the Divine, both within me and outside of me. Her book, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, is a masterpiece and a must-read. It remains one of the few books I have purchased repeatedly because I seem to keep giving the book away.
angel Kyodo williams
A Zen Buddhist priest and activist, Rev. angel Kyodo williams has been vitally important in my life, helping me to dislodge the idea that my inner work is disconnected from the outer work of action, justice, and societal liberation. She is the co-author, along with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, of an amazing book, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.
Over the past five years, Resmaa Menakem has become one of my most intimate of wisdom teachers, helping me to understand my white body, the impact it has in our world, and the trauma it carries within it. His book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, reads like a gift of love for the world, challenging us, especially white people, to engage white supremacy, not as an intellectual concept, but in a fully embodied way.
I was first introduced to Parker Palmer’s work through his writings on education and leadership, but soon found his to be a fount of wisdom in just about every subject matter. He is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and author of many books, including my favorites, The Active Life and The Courage to Teach. I especially love his teaching on disillusionment, reminding us that to become disillusioned is the experience of noticing the illusion we’re currently living with.
A couple close to me
My dearest friend and elder, Molly is a true Elder in the sense of the word. She taught me how to grow with age – she has modeled through her humility and willingness to try new things what curiosity and openness can look like. It has been such a beautiful thing to walk with her and apprentice myself to her wisdom; while we don’t talk often, her presence in my life has been one of guidance showing me that no matter our age, we can continue to grow and examine our inner lives.
T. James’ life wasn’t easy – he was a man who knew great pain intimately and close up. And yet he embodied such powerful forgiveness and love. As all wisdom teachers do, he invited us to touch Reality in a raw and powerful way – for me, he served as a model of resurrection, of curiosity humor, and laughing amongst the sorrows of life. I’m so deeply thankful. (I wrote about T. James here.)
As you think about you wisdom teachers, if they are living, I invite you to reach out to them. Let them know their impact on you. Show them gratitude and how they have supported your life. Saying “thank you” goes a long way – and it’s one of the most important spiritual practices we have.